Sermons in Sociolinguistic Skins: An Analysis of Wharry's Study on Discourse Markers in African-American Sermons

By Scott Berghegger
2009, Vol. 1 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

In her article, “Amen and Hallelujah preaching: Discourse functions in African American sermons,” Cheryl Wharry examines the use of “sermonic expressions” by African American preachers to denote textual changes, to mark rhythm (a feature commonly associated with traditional African American culture-speak), and to maintain an atmosphere of spirituality. Wharry refutes the assumption that Black preachers’ spiritual expressions are markers for a call-and-response technique, noting that call-and-response “is displayed in the overall service and in congregational responses, but it is infrequently a function of the preacher’s formulaic expressions” (Wharry 221).

The pragmatic system of a preacher’s sermon in a Black church, steeped in African oral tradition, may seem oriented in a call-and-response technique, but members of the church’s speech community are attentive to the illocutionary force of their spiritual leader’s discursive register. Most sermonic utterances may seem to elicit a response, but actually serve a different purpose within the preacher’s discourse with his or her audience. The functions of these expressions include textual boundary markers, rhythm markers, and spiritual maintenance markers. The speech community’s register, along with a residual cultural effect stemming from African oral language tradition, accounts for the dynamic discourse that takes place inside a Black church.

Wharry identifies three types of textual boundary markers: text type changes that move a discourse from one perspective or type of speech to the next, topic or subtopic boundaries that signal a change from one topic to another, and topic continuity markers that are used to return to a theme after a digression (212). Wharry’s first example appears to simply be the preacher’s premeditated reaction to the word jail, but she proceeds to explicate why the preacher used this sermonic exclamation.

In accordance with Davis’ fourth component of a traditional Black sermon (206), the preacher moves between concrete and abstract and uses the phrase “Lord have mercy” to denote this distinction. This instance of language-in-use is followed by “so…,” which marks that the preacher is about to make an important point, “personally relevant” to the congregation, related to the overall theme of his sermon.

An example of a topic boundary marker (Wharry 214) shows the relationship between discourse markers and contrasting topics in the preacher’s sermon. The preacher uses “Thank you Jesus” to mark a topic change that bears resemblance to the concrete-abstract dichotomy of the above example. No metaphor is present here – the two topics, while related, concentrate on two different perspectives: that of Blacks critical of White charismatic church practices, and that of Blacks who attend those churches and practice their faith with the same fervor as their fellow African Americans in Black legalist churches.

If one focuses deeper on the lexical choice of the preacher, “Thank you Jesus” refers to both sides of the textual boundary. She thanks Jesus for “not goin’ to hell behind that [foolishness]” and for the faith that her racial brothers and sisters show in churches run by White preachers.

Unlike topic boundary markers, Wharry defines topic continuity markers as those which “[suggest] a return to something previously mentioned” in the sermon (215). In example (5) the preacher begins by saying “now there are two points,” and digresses from these “two points” to delineate the difference between teaching and preaching, and what God has told him to do. To return to the main topic the preacher uses “Amen” and immediately afterward, “…listen” (216). In fact, by saying “Amen” he is saying “listen,” and his congregation, as part of his speech community skilled in the semantics of spiritual talk, responds by calming down, which, according to Wharry, is the preacher’s objective of introducing the initial topic in the first place.

The audience-congregation is attuned to the speech acts of the preacher and is aware of his or her “intentions when using [sermonic expressions] and the impact on hearers [i.e., the congregation] of that speaker’s language use” (Johnson 37). The preacher and congregation are members of a community in practice toward the common goal of (to paraphrase in the style of Prof. Bamberg) “doing sermon.”

Wharry showcases another important example of sermonic expressions as a text type change (213). The language before the utterance of three expressions in a row is markedly different from the language after. The preacher’s use of synonyms and alliteration, a method of phonological repetition, incites the congregation to respond, and she responds back with “Praise God.” The next three sermonic devices focus as an etcetera or an ellipsis before the final “Hallelujah” punctuates the string of “spiritual r…” words.

To cope with the interruption of her sermon, the preacher, in a conversational style with her audience, uses a contextual, pragmatic language-in-use system to “[guide her] participants’ utterances and interpretations within a communicative context” (Johnson 37). In essence she tells the congregation, through the final expression “Hallelujah,” to listen – the next topic of her sermon is about to be introduced.

In the previous example Wharry notes that the rhythms of the two units around the sermonic discourse marker are “strikingly different” (213). Molefi Kete Asante notes that “harmonizing is a principal function of black speech behavior, and every attempt is made to reach internal [i.e., intra-conversational] harmony, the blending of sounds and ideas, for effectiveness” (Asante 25). Wharry takes this function to heart when identifying sermonic rhythm markers in the discourse of the preachers.

Specifically in example (10), Wharry pays special attention to the phonological events that color the preacher’s words. In the first three formulaic expressions the preacher creates a rhythm to which his congregation can follow and know that he is “with them” spiritually and culturally. His expressions are phonologically and lexically poetic (“Tha:nk you Jesus. Tha:nk you Jesus. Tha:nk you Jesus”) until he decides to once again assume control as the leader of his congregation and changes the intonation and lexicon in the last expression, “Thank you Lo:rd” (Wharry 220).

This poetic performance, like a drum language, complete with prosodic cues for the audience to follow and interact with, not only guides the speech community toward a specific goal but is also a “marking of identity with culturally-specific contextualization” (Scott 241). Indeed, the African oral tradition presents itself in the Black churches in the form of rhythmic markers and textual boundaries, connecting the religious aspect of African American culture to styles of secular African American Vernacular English (such as “Girl” and “Look,” investigated in the Scott article).         

However, the oral tradition is introduced in other ways, most notably the rejection of seemingly staged or previously written sermons by Black church congregations. Sociocultural barriers between the oral culture of African descendants and the literacy-based education and organizational systems of the United States have created a complex that African Americans who attend church must solve. Would they prefer their sermons “reduced” to the written word, or, as members of Black churches choose, would they like to have a preacher “open to the direction of the ‘Spirit’” (Wharry 204)? To be “open to the ‘Spirit’” is to be human, and many African Americans prefer their preacher to appear as a human in the service of God rather than the mouthpiece of God Himself (however contradictory to Davis’ first component of a traditional Black sermon this may seem).

John McWhorter, an African American himself, defines oral language as real language as opposed to “fancy” written language (McWhorter 6-7). He posits that “[t]o hedge is human – in oral language” (11). This speaks to the humanity of the oral preacher – if the sermon is delivered spontaneously and “open to the direction of the ‘Spirit,’” the synonyms and obscurities of the Oxford English Dictionary are far less powerful than the spiritual language used in Black sermons. To an African American church congregation, “So be it” is no “Amen.”

Wharry conducted her study in reaction to the paucity of research concerning the roles of discourse markers in African American sermons. Her work is concise, yet speaks volumes – not only about the multi-faceted use of spiritual discourse markers in the six particular sermons she coded, but of the gravity that pragmatic, semantic, syntactic, and phonological bases of language within a speech community can have on the understanding of both leader and audience.

Though the study would have benefited from a more in-depth analysis of lexical and phonological features and perhaps a system of decoding speech more analogous to poetry terminology considering the “preacher as poet/performer” metaphor, Wharry addresses the issues of discourse marker functions and African oral tradition in Black sermons impressively.


Asante, Molefi Kete. “African elements in African-American English.” Africanisms in American Culture. Joseph E. Holloway, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. 19-33.

Johnson, Fern L. Speaking Culturally. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2000.

McWhorter, John. Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care. New York: Gotham Books, 2003.

Scott, Karla D. “Crossing cultural borders: ‘girl’ and ‘look’ as markers of identity in Black women’s language use.” Discourse & Society 11 (2000): 237-248.

Wharry, Cheryl. “Amen and Hallelujah preaching: Discourse functions in African American sermons.” Language in Society 32 (2003): 203-225.

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